Friday dawned rainy. Fifteen minutes past the opening hour posted outside, the voter registration office for the neighbourhood of Malhangalene, in Maputo, capital of Mozambique, was still locked. A guard sat on a chair, text messaging on his cell phone, two empty Heineken bottles in a plastic bag on the floor next to him. "They'll be here soon," he said.
As if on cue, a young woman in a pink shirt reached the top of the stairs in the deserted middle school, unlocked the door of the office and took her place behind a computer. After dozens of media reports about waiting for hours in Mozambique's obligatory voter registration drive, nobody had come to register.
Earlier in the week it was different: the line had gone out the door, spilling onto the wrap-around verandah of the former colonial church. Pick-up trucks packed to capacity with voter registration activists in yellow shirts trawled the streets of Maputo, calling through loudspeakers for pedestrians to fulfil their civic duty.
Then, on 22 November, the final day for registration, the government announced that voters would have until 15 March, and the sense of urgency faded.
The registration effort was to pave the way for three separate elections over the course of two years: to create new provincial assemblies - part of an effort to decentralise government power - which should have occurred in mid-January 2007; municipal elections, scheduled for 2008; and presidential elections, set down for 2009.
The ruling party, FRELIMO, has been in power since independence in 1975. Since the end of the country's 16-year civil war in 2002, it has won each election, triggering protests - and a poll boycott in 1998 - by the main opposition, RENAMO, over the fairness and transparency of the ballot.
Bickering, postponement and hesitation
Problems with voter registration and a general lack of preparedness mean the provincial elections, originally scheduled for 16 January 2008, will now be grouped with one of the later two. RENAMO favours coupling provincial and municipal elections; FRELIMO prefers combining them with the presidential vote.
Mozambique's effort to register an estimated 10.5 million eligible voters, its first since 1999, has been characterised by delay. Scheduled to begin in August, it did not start until late September due to delays in the country's population census, also undertaken this year.
An attempt to modernise the process with computerised equipment was disastrous, with reports of poorly trained workers, unsure how to use the machines, taking hours to register a single person. Delivery of the machines was also delayed.
According to the Mozambique Political Process Bulletin, a publication issued by European Parliamentarians for Africa (AWEPA), only 400 of the 3,242 voter registration posts had received the computers by the first day of registration on 24 September.
Political bickering ensued, with RENAMO accusing FRELIMO of sabotaging suffrage. RENAMO has alleged that the National Election Commission (CNE in Portuguese), which determines where voter registration posts are to be located and is dominated by the ruling party, has allowed more posts in FRELIMO stronghold areas.
RENAMO said its very real chance of winning a majority in the country's central and northern provinces had been compromised, with FRELIMO opening more registration posts in its strongholds in the south of the country than in the north.
AWEPA found that the southern province of Inhambane had almost twice the number of posts compared to central Sofala province, a RENAMO stronghold, in spite of having approximately the same geographical size and fewer people.
"If registration is not done properly it's very dangerous for the 2009 presidential elections. It means that FRELIMO would win," said RENAMO spokesman Fernando Mazanga. "In Maputo [in the south] 82 percent of the population is FRELIMO. In Nampula [in the north], it's almost equally split between the parties."
CNE spokesman Juvenal Bucuane said, "The dispersion of the posts was done according to population density without any partisan discrimination." He estimated that approximately 50 percent of the electorate had already registered.
RENAMO officials claimed they had even found a document indicating that the regional disparities in access to registration were a deliberate effort on the part of FRELIMO, though when IRIN asked to see the document Mazanga said he had run out of copies. "We couldn't have invented something of this nature," he said. "We're not that low."
"It's false. Absolutely false," said FRELIMO spokesman Edson Macuacua. "This is a fabrication of RENAMO."
The party's paranoia may not be unfounded. AWEPA reported in its bulletin that RENAMO strongholds in the central provinces of Sofala and Zambezia had an average of 3,000 voters per post, versus 2,000 on average per post in other regions of the country.
The flexibility of deadlines, and delays in both elections and registration, has indicated that Mozambique's transition to multiparty democracy is hardly a done deal. The creation of provincial assemblies will almost certainly lessen FRELIMO's hold on power.
Postponing the provincial elections required a constitutional amendment, because these assemblies should have been formed within three years of the 2004 presidential election.
Provincial governors will still be appointed rather than elected, but will be monitored by an elected body for the first time. "These assemblies will inspect provincial governments and improve the process of approval for smaller issues," said Bacuane. "When everything has to go through Maputo it takes a long time."
According to the State Secretariat for Electoral Administration, only 2.4 million of Mozambique's estimated 10.5 eligible voters had been registered by 30 October. In the meantime, the ads on television will be asking: "Dear citizen, have you registered yet?"